Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Rays Learn to Appreciate Yunel Escobar


With two outs, two runners on, and the tying run at the plate for the Toronto Blue Jays, Alex Cobb forced Adam Lind to hit the ball on the ground, but Rays fans were still quite nervous when the ball came off the bat. It seemed like Lind could not have hit the ball to a better spot as he hit the ball just towards the right of second base and that the ball was going to go through for an RBI single. However, Yunel Escobar was positioned well enough that he could snag the ball on a dive, and he rose and fired to beat Lind by half a step and get Cobb out of the inning. It was a perfect analogy for what the last five weeks have been for Escobar in a Rays uniform: the Rays have gotten him in the right situation, and Escobar’s ability has done the rest.

Everywhere he has gone, Yunel Escobar has developed a reputation as an enigmatic personality that had the talent to be great but whose maturity issues would prevent him from ever getting there. That is probably true to an extent, but the more you see Escobar, the more you realize that maybe he isn’t so much more high-maintenance and maybe is just a little different. That especially came to the light after Escobar made a “safe” gesture with his hands following his two-run home run in the 9th inning of Monday’s game. Immediately after the game ended, Joe Maddon had this to say.

"“I still want to talk to him about the reaction after the home run. And I’m certain you’re not going to see that again.”"

Maddon wasn’t necessarily angry at Escobar, but he felt that the gesture was wrong and something that he should try to make sure Escobar knows he shouldn’t do. But after actually talking to Escobar, Maddon completely changed course.

"“Some people point to the sky, he shows a safe sign,” Maddon said. “For me I love the way he is. I want him to remain the way he is. He did nothing wrong. … People that want to say that he did, that’s a fabrication on somebody’s part based on your own personal judgments, period.”"

Why did Maddon have the sudden change of heart? Clearly he learned the nature of the gesture when he talked to Escobar, but why did he have to emerge so positive about it? In a usual situation, wouldn’t you see the manager describe what happened as “a misunderstanding that he’ll try to work on moving forward?” As Maddon met with Escobar, he realized that he was dealing with a completely different type of personality and that he had to support him in an atypical way.

Yunel Escobar is 30 years old. How could he still have maturity problems? Why do we keep making excuses for him when he’s certainly at an age when he should be able to fend for himself? The reason is that what’s perceived as Escobar’s immaturity is really the youthful exuberance that makes him as good as he can be. It’s his enthusiasm that ties his entire game together and gives him the extra push he needs. Joe Maddon’s job as manager is to get Escobar relaxed when he’s slumping and to prevent him from taking his emotions too far, but when he’s going strong and keeping his actions within reason, Maddon’s best move is to just leave him be and even encourage him.

In the first 17 games of the season, Yunel Escobar was terrible, managing just a .119/.200/.153 line with 2 doubles, no homers, and 3 RBI in 66 plate appearances. He was doing nothing at the plate and he was taking his frustration into the field, struggling almost as mightily at shortstop as he was in the batter’s box. But ever since then, Escobar has completely turned his season around. In his last 23 games and 87 plate appearances, Escobar has a .291/.349/.519 line with 6 doubles, 4 homers, and 14 RBI. His defense has been incredibly impressive as well and maybe never more than on Tuesday, when he made the great diving stop in the 6th before leaping over the incoming runner to complete a huge inning-ending double play in the 8th. Escobar is still hitting just .217, but for the past five weeks, he has been exactly the player the Rays knew he was capable of being when they acquired him from the Miami Marlins. And with Escobar playing so well, Joe Maddon and the Rays don’t want him to change a thing.

When Yunel Escobar is struggling, it’s so easy to chastise him for his personality. Escobar sometimes gets too emotional and causes himself to become unsettled, and that can a short slump into extended frustration. So ubiquitously ignored, though, is all the benefits Escobar’s enthusiasm have to his game when things are going well and how intrinsic Escobar’s emotions are to him as a person on and off the field. Yunel Escobar sticks out of the crowd, but that doesn’t mean he can be as good as everyone else and maybe even better. That doesn’t mean that Escobar should have free reign to do whatever he wants–we saw last year how he put the gay slur on his eye black–and Joe Maddon understands that. His reaction following the home run was an attempt to make sure that Escobar didn’t go too far again but he soon realized that he was seeing the situation in the wrong light. The job of Joe Maddon and the Rays clubhouse is to keep Escobar in his comfort zone and prevent him from getting too down or excessively excited. And if they can continue to do that, they could have themselves a very talented shortstop and quite possibly the best their franchise has ever had to this point.